Grain Bin Burials

Andy Bauer, London, OH, branch manager for Heritage Farm Co-op, regularly offers a $20 bill to anyone who can escape from a hip-high pile of grain. Despite the offer to fit firefighters and farm kids on the school's wrestling team, he has paid off only once. That's because it is nearly impossible to escape an avalanche inside a grain bin once grain starts to shift.

While rural first responders train constantly to handle barn fires and chemical emergencies, almost none train to rescue victims from grain bins. Now a program in Ohio teaches first responders what to do and how to do it.

How it Happens

Grain bin burials typically happen when a farmer steps inside a bin to break up a layer of corn. As he is shoveling a layer of wheat or soybeans that is stuck to the wall of the grain bin, the grain suddenly avalanches. If a grain augur is running at the base of the bin, the farmer has fewer than four seconds to escape a deadly trap. So far this year, 38 American farmers have died in grain bin burial accidents. But grain bins are not the only hazard. Gravity flow wagons and semi-trailers act as traps, too.

According to OSHA, even sticking one's head into the door of a grain bin constitutes "an entry" into the bin. Doing so without safety equipment is illegal, but farmers continue to enter grain bins without a rope or harness.

Grain Bin Rescue

The first step to rescuing a victim is to turn off the unloader augur at the bottom of the bin. Next, an aluminum rescue tube, which has to be small enough to easily fit in a 22" x 22" opening, is brought into the bin. Once it's placed around the entrapped victim, the grain rescue tube alleviates pressure from grain or other flowing material and prevents the victim from being engulfed.

However, these are only the final steps in the chain of events that will save a life. As with any rescue protocol, ideally the procedure starts well ahead of disaster.

Preparing Ahead

Training is key. "Professional firefighters get absolutely no training in agriculture," says Captain Dave Torsell from the City of Urbana, Ohio, Division of Fire.

Nobody should ever go into a grain bin while alone. Having a buddy outside the bin vastly increases a victim's chance of survival. "It is not news that people go into grain bins. What is news is that we now have a way to rescue people from grain bins," says Torsell. He recommends rescue teams visit local farmers and practice on their farms so they get a taste of what they might encounter.

Even before that, the first step for the local volunteer fire department is to build a file of information on local farms. Most counties already have an address identification program, and many farmers have provided their local department with a list of chemicals stored on the farm. First responders also need to know where the farm's electronics are. Remember, the first step to saving a person avalanched in a grain bin is killing the augur.

Once burial has stopped, the next step is to relieve pressure on the victim, especially if the burial is deeper than waist-high. Having a harness and rope linking everyone to the outside makes this proposition much easier. Once the grain gets chest-high, the farmer is in deep trouble. A bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds; just 10 bushels of corn is the equivalent of a quarter-ton weight pressing on the victim's chest, making breathing difficult.

Upon reaching the farm, responders should build a coffer dam around the victim. This can be done with something as simple as a couple of plywood units with rope handles. Backboards make great dam components. There also are commercial metal tubes that link together and allow rescuers to build a dam around the victim.

"It is important to give the victim something to grasp onto so he doesn't sink further, and so he can help with his own rescue," says Bauer.

Training first responders helps, but, as with any emergency, the reality often is different than the practice. "Just because the fire department shows up in response doesn't mean they are trained for this," says Bauer. "Even if a farmer is lucky enough to get a crew that trained at a demonstration site, they probably did not train working 30 feet above the ground in a pitch-black bin."

No would-be rescuer should go into the bin without backup. This only creates a second victim and will likely bury the first victim deeper.

"If you are the farmer going down, relax!" Bauer emphasizes. That advice is so counterintuitive that he admits it will rarely be heeded; however, flailing about only causes more grain to slide and bury the farmer deeper. Help will come only from his buddy or the first responders.

Another solution, used by skiers and mountaineers, is to try swimming in the grain using a backstroke. The experts agree, however, it is better not to be in situation that might cause an avalanche of either snow or grain.

Today, several companies make rescue tubes. All of them work well and most will work in combination with other brand tubes.

The last happy step in a grain bin rescue is for the victim to help free himself. A coffee can or small bucket can be used to scoop the grain out of the coffer dam. "It's amazing how fast they scoop," says Bauer.

Sidebar: Where To Find Rescue Tubes

There are at least three providers of rescue tubes. Generally, the units are not cheap. They run $1,500-$4,000, depending on features.

Some sources for rescue tubes are:

  • Gingway Products
  • KC Supply Company
  • Illinois State University developed a plastic model called the Liberty Tube. While it is lighter, it is more flexible, and some rescuers note it has a tendency to collapse against the victim. That is being addressed in newer versions.

Sidebar: Pioneer Honored for Rescue Tube

With the growth of ethanol and the economics of diversification, the number of farmers with grain bins is growing; thus, the problem is expanding. Bernard J. Scott of Bowling Green, OH, deserves most of the honors for recognizing the problem of farmers being trapped in grain bins and developing the first rescue tools. Recently inducted into the Ohio Farm Science Review Hall of Fame for his pioneering work, Scott made the first rescue tubes 28 years ago.

Curt Harler specializes in three areas of writing: telecommunications and data networking; turfgrass and environmental issues; and ghost writing and white papers for corporations and executive clients.